Habakkuk is thought to have been a contemporary of Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and possibly Joel.
The book is set in the closing years of the kingdom of Judah. King Josiah had died, and his son and successor Jehoiakim had reversed the religious reforms of his father, cf. Jer 22:13-19. The kingdom was rife with wickedness and corruption. Destruction at the hands of the ascending power of Babylon was imminent. But to the prophet God seemed passive and unconcerned. Like Job in very different circumstances, Habakkuk asks, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ Like Job, the prophet had to learn to trust God, and to believe that in the end God’s way – the right way – would prevail.
‘The time seems to have been about 610 B.C. For the Chaldeans attacked Jerusalem in the ninth month of the fifth year of Jehoiakim, 605 B.C. (2 Ki 24:1 2 Ch 36:6 Jer 46:2 36:9). And Habakkuk (Hab 1:5,6, etc.) speaks of the Chaldeans as about to invade Judah, but not as having actually done so. In the second chapter he proceeds to comfort his people by foretelling the humiliation of their conquerors, and that the vision will soon have its fulfilment. In the third chapter the prophet in a sublime ode celebrates the deliverances wrought by Jehovah for His people in times past, as the ground of assurance, notwithstanding all their existing calamities, that He will deliver them again. Hab 3:16 shows that the invader is still coming, and not yet arrived; so that the whole refers to the invasion in Jehoiakim’s times, not those under Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. The Apocryphal appendix to Daniel states that he lived to see the Babylonian exile (588 B.C), which accords with his prophesying early in Jehoiakim’s reign, about 610 B.C.’ (JFB)
‘As Judah and Jerusalem had sunk deeper into disobedience towards God and his requirements, so the fabric of national life had begun to come apart at the seams.’ (Prior)
‘In the New Testament, Rom 1:17 quotes Hab 2:4 (though not naming him); compare also Gal 3:11 Heb 10:38. Acts 13:40,41 quotes Hab 1:5.’ (JFB)
‘Josiah had been a just king, ruling and administering justice in the spirit of Israel’s covenant law: “He judged in the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well” (Jer 22:16). Jehoiakim inherited none of his father’s qualities. He exploited his subjects for his own aggrandisement and had no concern for justice and mercy [2 King 23:36f]. Those who held subordinate positions of power in the land – governors and judges – took their cue from him. The result was widespread oppression, injustice and violence. There was no hope of redress except in God: and God did not seem to be taking any action to vindicate his own law or indeed his own character.’ (F.F. Bruce)
OT prophecy is usually in the form of an address from God to the people. This book differs in that it is in the form of a passionate debate between the prophet and God. ‘Whereas Jeremiah (22:17) directed his passion against the king, Habbakuk addressed his complaint to God. ‘In many ways the prophecy of Habakkuk is unique. It is especially noteworthy in the style of its approach. Instead of addressing the people directly as a spokesman of the Lord, Habakkuk imparted God’s message by telling them how it first came to him and answered the questions that were rising in his soul. With the possible exception of Daniel, no other biblical author employs this particular technique.’ (Survey of OT Introduction)
A key problem addressed by this book is the apparent gulf between what we belief God to be and what we observe and experience in the world around us. If God is all-loving, he would wish to rid the world of suffering. If God is all-powerful, he would be able to do so. Why then does he seem to stand by while evil flourishes and suffering increases? Put this way, the book can readily be seen to have a message for all God’s people in all ages.
A commentary on Habakkuk found in Cave One at Qumran in 1948 ends with ch. 2, suggesting that the psalm which makes up ch. 3 may have had an independent existence. However ch. 3 is included in all complete mss of the LXX and in other ancient manuscripts.
The prophet begins by complaining about the wickedness that was rampant in Judah, Hab 1:2-4. The Lord’s reply is that God raise up the Chaldeans who will wreak death and destruction on the wicked in Judah. The paradox is that God will judge the wicked, but using an instrument even more wicked than the evil in Judah. This prompts a second complaint, Hab 1:12-17. How can God tolerate such evil? Are the wicked to continue to prosper, as the grow ever more wicked? No: they will not escape his judgement. Meanwhile, the righteous must wait patiently, in faithful confidence that God will keep his promises. The fact that God would certainly judge the Chaldeans is underlined in the five woe oracles of Hab 2:6-20. Evil will not always prosper. A time will come when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God’s glory, 2:14. The prophet’s response is in the form of a victory-hymn, praising the Lord, the mighty Judge. This psalm is buttressed by references to the mighty works of God in the past.
The message of Habakkuk is illustrated in the life of Christ himself. He was taunted, threatened, and killed. Yet God did not deliver him from this. To all appearances, evil had triumphed. Yet he trusted in his Father, Mt 27:43; Heb 10:38a, and God vindicated him by raising him from the dead, Rom 1:4. In the resurrection of Jesus God announces that he is not at a distant, nor is he powerless to help. Final victory belongs to the Lord.
Christians are called to a life of faith. Paul quotes Hab 2:4 in asserting that righteousness is by faith from beginning to end. And this is notwithstanding the fact that we live in a evil age, Gal 1:4; 3:11. Faith is an assurance about the future and a certainty about things unseen, Heb 11:1. The saints of old were commended because they believed God when all outward circumstances conspired against such faith, Heb 11:2-40. We too believe that God will yet come and powerfully vindicate his name, Rev 19:11-16.
This book is something of a journey. Its starting point is a cry for help, 1:2ff. It finishes with a serene expression of faith, 3:17f.
It takes a special kind of person to see the hand of God in the suffering of one’s own nation, especially at the hands of an empire that is no less ruthless or cruel. One prophet, Habakkuk, dared to raise that issue. His problem was that God seemed to wink at the wickedness of the invaders:
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Hab 1:13)
God never gives the prophet a full answer. He tells him that the Babylonians’ day will come. Wickedness will not go unpunished. But the Lord has a purpose in the apparent tragedies of life. The man of God must rest assured that these sufferings are not the final answer. That will come in the end. Until then, the righteous person will live by faith in God, who is sovereign and just (Hab 2:2-5).
New Bible Dictionary